From Innovation to Disruption: State Voter Registration Practices Hit a Digital Turning Point for Election 2016

As states harness technology to modernize their election systems, no area of policymaking has more momentum than voter registration. Online registration, automatic voter registration and Election Day registration are increasingly popular options, with election officials predicting unprecedented levels of eligible voter enrollment and government cost-savings in 2016. Yet as states move away from inefficient paper forms to embrace digital processes, new questions are emerging about verifying, sharing and securing voter registration data. 

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About the Author

Kay Stimson is director of communications and special projects for the National Association of Secretaries of State in Washington, D.C. A former television news reporter who covered the state legislatures in Maryland and South Carolina, she enjoys writing about state and federal policy issues facing lawmakers.

With the 2016 presidential election cycle being called the “Year of Disruption,” one need only look at state voter registration practices for an issue that is going anywhere but in the direction of conventional, middle-of-the-road solutions. From challenging the notion that citizens must proactively take the initiative to register themselves, to pushing back against a historical overreliance on the use of paper forms for registration, times are quickly changing.

Thanks to the Help America Vote Act of 2002, today’s statewide electronic databases are the launching pad for a host of voter registration innovations—most notably online voter registration. The November 2016 elections will mark the first time that well over half of the eligible voting population in the U.S. will be able to register to vote via the internet. Thirty-one states plus the District of Columbia currently offer such services, with more states expected to come online before Nov. 8. 

“Make no mistake about it, this is the last clipboard election,” said Louisiana Secretary of State Tom Schedler, who heads the National Association of Secretaries of State. “The era of voter registration drives with volunteers carrying around reams of forms, and election clerks manually processing those stacks of paper, are going the way of the dinosaur. With online registration spreading around the country, there will be a much greater reliance on more accurate and efficient electronic processes in the future.”

Replacing antiquated, paper-based voter registration drives with online registration reduces delays and handwriting errors or omissions, ensuring that people who sign up ultimately get placed on the voter rolls. It also prevents the systemic overwhelm that can occur when large numbers of voter registration applications are submitted to local election offices at the last minute. 

“Online voter registration is the new norm,” remarked Pennsylvania Secretary of State Pedro A. Cortés, whose state online system—launched in August 2015—registered more than 100,000 eligible voters in less than six months’ time. “The data is too convincing to ignore, both in terms of potential increases in voter participation and the cost savings to governments at all levels.” 

In addition to driving more voter registration activity online, Cortés points to Pennsylvania’s system as a platform for enhancing multilingual services and accessibility options for voters with disabilities. It’s also optimized for use by younger voters, who tend to rely on mobile devices for carrying out everyday business. 

Challenging the Status Quo
Automatic voter registration, or AVR, may be the most disruptive idea this year, shifting the traditionally passive process of having citizens register to vote onto the government. All eyes are on Oregon, which became the first state to launch AVR on Jan. 1, 2016. Eligible voters are automatically registered to vote when they renew or apply for a driver’s license. The Oregon Motor Voter Act also requires automatic registration for eligible voters who have conducted business with the Department of Motor Vehicles since 2013. Registered voters receive a mailing from the secretary of state’s office advising them to choose a political party, opt out, or do nothing (to be listed as non-affiliated voters). California passed a similar law, but it has yet to go into effect.1

In February, Oregon Secretary of State Jeanne Atkins reported a smooth rollout of automatic voter registration. She noted that more than 4,000 new voters were registered in the first six days, compared to an average of 2,000 new registrations per month under the old system. Roughly 7 percent of eligible citizens had opted out of registration altogether.

Atkins added that her office discovered a few surprises with the new system. First, the secretary of state’s office didn’t receive a high volume of calls or emails from people who were upset about being automatically added to the voter rolls, as some had anticipated. Second, the AVR system made it possible for Oregon officials to quickly update 17,000 existing voter registrations to reflect changes of address.

“Under our old system, it could take weeks, months—or even years—to update someone’s voter registration information after they moved within the state,” said Atkins. “Now, we have a much more efficient way to address a huge administrative issue for us, especially as a state that conducts its elections entirely by mail.” 

While more than 15 states are expected to consider automatic voter registration proposals for 2016, including Connecticut, Illinois and Maryland, the biggest challenge may be finding a way to adapt the concept beyond blue-leaning states.

Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman, a Republican, introduced bipartisan legislation that would bring automatic voter registration to her state. Washington doesn’t check for proof of citizenship in order to get a regular driver’s license, so under her proposal, those with commercial or enhanced licenses who have undergone citizenship checks and meet other voting requirements—as well as those receiving social services that verify citizenship, or those who are getting health insurance through the state health exchange—would be automatically registered to vote.2 Like Oregon, citizens would also have the choice of opting out. 

Wyman estimated that if the bill becomes law, the number of new voters could range from the tens of thousands to as high as 500,000. “We are looking at ways to find that very important middle ground in election administration—balancing access with security,” said Wyman. “It’s the result of compromise that both major political parties should be able to accept.” 

Another innovation whose adoption is often split along partisan lines is Election Day registration, which allows eligible voters to register and vote same-day at a polling site or at county/town offices. Once a practice in just a handful of places, it has now been adopted in 15 states (although California and Hawaii have not yet implemented the practice).

Utah is currently running a three-year pilot program to determine whether same-day registration increases voter participation. So far, at least five counties have reported significant improvements in turnout, particularly among voters between the ages of 18 and 24 years old. Proponents say Election Day registration provides convenience and reduces the need for provisional ballots. Opponents say it can create longer lines and waiting times at the polls, and open up a potential avenue for fraud. 

Protecting Digital Voter Registration Lists
With so many states looking at new ways to get people added to their voter rolls, questions have also recently emerged about the best ways to collect, share and secure voter registration files. 

In December 2015, the voter registration data of 191 million Americans was discovered on the internet by security experts who found what was apparently a misconfigured server owned by an unidentified data aggregator. Although it is all publicly available information, many Americans consider details like their political party affiliation or home address to be private data. New issues are being raised about what states can and should be doing to protect and manage the data involved. 

For example, what kinds of safeguards should be in place when it comes to personal information contained in publicly available voter registration files? Should there be state notification laws when voter registration data is found to be improperly accessed or exposed, much like medical or financial data? Should firms that purchase or obtain public data on voter registration for political purposes be held accountable for providing access to clients or campaigns that leave personal information unsecured and available on the internet? 

“We need to do more in educating voters up front that state voter files are public information,” said California Secretary of State Alex Padilla. “California data file rules are pretty specific about sharing or selling data. However, we may need to look at establishing better protocols on what recipients of the data are doing with it.” 

Padilla also is overseeing an effort to allow for third-party integration with California’s new online voter registration system, allowing voter outreach groups to build registration into their own online platforms and track users who are registering with their tools. West Virginia and Pennsylvania have been conducting similar pilots. Washington, one of the first states to offer online registration in 2008, has taken it a step beyond and integrated its process with social media platform Facebook.

All of these changes leave no doubt that in the course of just 15 years, the process of voter registration and how people interact with government for electoral engagement have fundamentally shifted toward the digital age. Modernization is bringing high risk and high reward for those who embrace change. Policy makers considering voter registration advances will need to understand all of the new technological and legal issues involving online registration, automatic registration and Election Day registration, and they should prepare to adopt data policies that guide digital voter registration practices.

“We are in a cycle of relentless innovation for election officials and voters alike,” observed Washington’s Wyman, who has worked in election administration for more than 20 years. “If you’re not thinking about revolution, you should at least understand the technological evolution and all of the state changes that are driving the trends.” 


1 New Jersey Governor Chris Christie vetoed automatic voter registration legislation passed by the New Jersey State Legislature.
2 Unlike California and Oregon, Washington does not require proof of U.S. citizenship or legal presence in order to get a driver’s license, which is why proponents are not seeking automatic voter registration for everyone.